Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Web Access for the Disabled: ASK

Cathy Murtha describes a simple, but effective, library enquiry system, of use to disabled and non-disabled people.

The Wallace Library [1], located at the Rochester Institute of Technology [2] , has optimized its use of the web through the use of its e-mail system, called ASK [3]. Although they limit their services to their own community, they do provide an invaluable service to their faculty, staff and student body. Public libraries could also provide such services. Whether the services are offered to a local community, or the world, the disabled could benefit greatly by such a service.

The Wallace Library offers its ASK service to the RIT community. ASK allows questions to be posed to the library staff. whether it be a phone number, publisher’s address, or a source for information, the staff at Wallace is available to answer the questions. The system is accessed through the campus on-line system or via the Internet. ASK has its own e-mail address which is checked several times a day. One might think that such a service would be abused and overwhelm the librarians who are responsible for the service, but it seems that just the opposite is true.

According to Linda Coppola of the reference department at the Wallace Library, the ASK system receives only 1 or 2 requests per day which are easily handled by the librarians on staff. The questions are answered within 24 hours (not including weekends and holidays). If the question is too complicated for a single e-mail, the patron is referred to an appropriate research assistant in the library. Each member of the Wallace Library reference staff has a subject specialization, so the patron is referred to the appropriate staff member for further assistance.

ASK receives very few requests for information from outside of their service area, Coppola feels this may be due to the disclaimer they have posted on their web site. Any requests that may filter in from beyond their service area are responded to with a post informing the individual that the service is limited to the RIT community.

The ASK service is complimented by a “center for the visually impaired” within the library. This center offers equipment for reading and listening to materials that are available at the library. Talking book players and an Arkenstone scanner offer access to materials that would, otherwise, be inaccessible to the blind and visually impaired.

These services, if offered by public libraries, could greatly benefit the disabled community. Simple questions, which might otherwise take hours of research on the net, or special transportation arrangements to reach the library, could be answered via e-mail. Appointments for research assistance could be arranged for a time when a librarian would be available to assist a patron.

Public libraries have only begun to tap the potential that lay at their fingertips. It is through programs such as ASK that the disabled community can be brought into the mainstream of library patronage.


  1. The Wallace Library in the Rochester Institute of Technology
  2. The Rochester Institute of Technology
  3. Guidelines for using ASK

Author Details

Cathy Murtha is interested in Web Access for the disabled, and has a set of Web pages on these issues.

Email: mist@pumpkin.cdepot.net
Web Pages: http://www2.cdepot.net/~mist/